Wendy Williamson set a timer, worked intently until the bell went off, then took a break. Dawn Allen memorized the many turns through the corridors of Loudoun Hospital Center that bring her to her work site. Jeff Bailey mastered a riding mower and kept a log of running time so he'd know when to change the oil.

In the grand scheme of things, these are small steps. But for these young people, and for several other mentally and physically disabled youths who have been working under the auspices of the Loudoun Association for Retarded Citizens, they are significant strides.

Each represented a crucial step in learning a job skill and in shifting toward greater independence as these disabled youngsters approach the age when they graduate from high school and try to find their niche in the adult world.

Last year, LARC ran a summer program in which a dozen young people had their first taste of private sector jobs. Several of them worked on a mountaintop herbal farm, pulling weeds and harvesting elephant garlic. The young people not only relished the pastoral setting, they also developed a sense of what it means to work for a living and how their employer is dependent upon their efforts.

Previously, LARC had been able to locate only a few outdoor employment opportunities and had never placed its teenagers in private sector jobs.

This year, the program has expanded to several companies in Loudoun County and has included more young people -- a total of 18. And the association has yet another challenge on its horizon: It hopes to make the quantum leap from finding summer jobs for its youths to finding year-round work, and even permanent employment, for some of them.

Federal government job-training funds pay the $4-an-hour salary of the disabled students during the summer. The young people learn skills at their own speeds without straining businesses' budgets.

But there can be a world of difference between a summer job and year-round work. LARC and similar groups hope to shrink that world, easing the burden of caring for the mentally and physically disabled that is currently shouldered heavily by their families and communities.

The Patomack Herbal Farm, Xerox, Hechinger Co. and other businesses provided a variety of job experiences this summer for LARC-sponsored youths, but the biggest concentration of seasonal jobs was at the Loudoun Hospital Center in Leesburg.

Youngsters worked in the laundry room, in the cafeteria, in the medical records department and on the groundskeeping force. Though they have finished their summer duties, the hospital is planning some part-time work for these or other young people with disabilities. According to the hospital's director of volunteer services, Joyce Sargent, such work will be slated "after school, on weekends, whenever we can arrange transportation" and other details.

One typical day this month, Jeff Bailey finished his lunch and hopped on his John Deere 420, a king-sized, four-wheel riding mower. Vaughn Currier, who is not disabled, started up a smaller mower, and the two of them turned neat corners as they tackled the many fields around the hospital.

Full-time maintenance man Michael Spivey said Bailey has been "a pretty good worker." Bailey has learned how to handle tough slopes and stay focused on the task at hand, and Spivey has found the summer to be "as much a learning experience for me as for him . . . . I have no qualms about what he can do."

Indoors, Dawn Allen and Wendy Williamson were helping Cornelia Jackson with the massive volume of medical records that must be processed. Allen, who carefully separated the pages of documents before feeding the sheets into a shredding machine, surprised both Jackson and LARC supervisor Emma McClain by turning off the machine unassisted for the first time.

"You never know what they can do," McClain said.

Nearby, Williamson scanned pages to alphabetize documents for later filing by others, clapping her hands in satisfaction once a stack was finished.

Already, says LARC summer program coordinator Denise Stanley, there are signs that the seasonal work can lead to permanent employment. A LARC-sponsored Leesburg resident who has finished high school is now working full time at the Ben Franklin craft shop in town, with the association paying 40 percent of his salary and Ben Franklin the rest.

Store manager Danny Garvin said the program works well for him. "These kids are the hardest workers," he said.